Moral Hocus Pocus

The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters believes he has had a moral revelation that shows how the HHS Mandate’s coercion of Catholics is no problem at all.

Winters proposes a simple sylogism (simplistic, rather) to justify President Obama’s illegal violation of religious freedom, as follows: Paying taxes is not morally problematic. The HHS Mandate is a tax. Therefore, the HHS Mandate is not morally problematic.

Winters’ theory is commits several common logical fallacies, including that he cannot demonstrate the minor premise, and he is equivocating about the category connecting the major and minor premises.

Moral Alchemy

The HHS mandate is not a tax, either legally or morally. Winters says there is no moral problem with someone paying taxes that the government uses for an unjust war. But the HHS Mandate is not a requirement that people pay taxes, a tiny fraction of which the government spends on contraception. The HHS Mandate is the federal government forcing Catholics to provide the contraception coverage themselves. No command to fight in unjust wars is attached to the taxes Winters claims are tolerable, and if there was one he would never call those commands morally acceptable. Winters thinks that by semantically labelling the HHS Mandate a tax he can ignore even a basic assessment of what the HHS Mandate actually is, as compared to what he claims are morally acceptable taxes. The two requirements are entirely different.

The HHS Mandate is also not, legally, a tax. The Mandate contains provisions by which, if an employer does not provide contraceptive coverage, the United States Secretary of Labor sues them to force them to provide the coverage. No one calls that a tax. In addition to lawsuit penalties there are also fines collected by the IRS. But that is not anything like paying taxes to a government that conducts unjust wars, which Winters considers morally acceptable. It is a command that Catholics themselves do immoral things. Winters might as well say that governments can command people to engage in unlimited evils as long as the only penalty for those commands involve jail time and fines, because there’s nothing immoral about going to jail and paying fines. Such reasoning is not “casuistry,” it is alchemy.

Lawyers are often accused of slitting hairs, but in this case the layman Winters is the one relying on a plainly incorrect interpretation of the Supreme Court to label the HHS Mandate a tax, just because in the “individual mandate” case the court called that a tax. There is no benefit in delving into that decision in depth to show Winters’ error. Of course the Court didn’t assess the HHS Mandate at all, and it called even the individual mandate a tax for some purposes and not for others. This illustrates that even if one could label something a tax, that is no substitute for actual legal reasoning, much less for actual moral reasoning, both of which Winters ignores. The HHS Mandate is literally a command that a private person do something immoral, or face massive lawsuits and fines. For Winters to call this A-OK because he heard once that a court called something else a tax is nonsensical.



  • djb

    Great article. Love the logic. Just a quick spell check: “syllogism” has two L’s.

  • Tanya

    Mr. Winters also seems to equate the issue of abortion/contraception as being equal with war. The first two are always and everywhere intrinsically evil and prohibited in Catholic teaching; while a war can be just and a country does have the right to defend itself. I am not saying that either the war in Afghanistan or Iraq are just (in fact, both JPII and BXVI I believe said they weren’t – but I may have that wrong) just that war is not in the same category. This seems to be a quite common misunderstanding among many Catholics about the equality of issues and that since neither political party is perfect, they can assuage their conscience in voting for a pro-choice candidate.

  • James Hahn II

    Matt, there is very good reason to believe the phrase “hocus pocus” is of anti-Catholic origin meant to mock the words of the consecration; “Hoc est enim Corpus meum.” As such, you should really refrain from using it, especially as a headline in a Catholic publication.

    • enness

      Oy, must we quibble over trivia? Even if a majority of people knew this (I doubt it), is there no statute of limitation on such things?

      • James Hahn II

        It’s the consecration. Yes, we must.

  • Hector

    I like how you guys constantly pick apart the absurd arguments made by The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters. Someone has to keep doing this on a regular basis. It reminds me of today’s patron saint, Pope Saint Pius X, and how he regular combated the heresies and evils of his time. We need to continue doing this in our day and age without rest.

  • Gail Allen

    If you say a dog is a cat, does that make it a dog a cat? If you say a round room has corners, will that cause the walls to become parallel? If you call yourself a Catholic, but deny the mandate of Christ teachings and the will of the Pope are you Catholic?



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